Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Gratis Oryza Sativa

Trrish pointed me to a nifty little site called FreeRice, and the experience was satisfying on several levels. FreeRice offers an unending stream of multiple-choice vocabulary questions: given a word, choose which of four options is its synonym. For every word you get right, 20 grains of rice are donated via the United Nations World Food Program. The money for this comes from fairly unobtrusive banner ads that appear below the test area. I enjoy a vocabulary challenge, so the opportunity to play a fun game while effortlessly doing a little bit of good was a double pleasure. In addition, the site ranks your vocabulary level, so there’s a scoring element, which helps encourage replay. The scores range from 0 to 55, but according to the site, “it is rare for people to get much above level 48.”

Your initial vocab level gets set after you answer your first four questions, and then advances by one for every three words you get right. The first time I played the game, my initial level was set at 40. Almost immediately, I was being given unfamiliar words, trying to piece together their etymological roots, narrowing down options by process of elimination, and generally having a fine time. However, the next time I played, I started out hasty and careless, so I got the first word wrong. Well, my initial level got set at 10 that time, and I then slowly crawled up to my former level.

This got me thinking: what’s the real score on FreeRice? Because I am all game-playey and test-takey, I immediately focused on the vocab level as the place to focus my achievement efforts. However, the session I played when I bombed my first question most certainly contributed more rice, and during that session I came to see that the real score isn’t vocab level, but rather grains of rice donated. I was reminded a bit of games like A Change In The Weather and Little Blue Men; these games offer an initial “win” state early on, but if you accept that win, you’ve missed the point of the game. It was yet another level of satisfaction: not only was I building my word power and donating food, I got to think a little bit about clever game mechanics as well.

After getting my first question wrong, I donated 2340 grains of rice and built my vocab level to 48 before getting another question wrong. Can you beat that?


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  1. NO!, I cannot beat that. Well, I have donated 11,000 grains of rice as of last night, but I am really struggling to get to level 46. I can hang out at 44 – 45 for a while but haven’t gotten higher. Maybe I should try playing it another time when it isn’t 11:00pm and I’m dead tired. But now I’m motivated!! Competition with Paul!!!

  2. I got to 50 — once — and immediately quit so that my record would remain untarnished.

    (I was under the impression that 50 was the maximum score. Did that change, or was I wrong, or do you not know?)

    • I don’t know if it ever changed, but the FAQ page definitely now says, “There are 55 levels in all, but it is rare for people to get much above level 48.”

    • Follow-up! Paying even closer attention to the FAQ, I found this: “A team of professional lexicographers from the firm of Lexiteria is working to add words and additional levels to the FreeRice database. Five new levels were added in late January 2008 and more will follow.”

      So yeah, it recently changed.

  3. I will check this out. It sounds like a lot of fun. My question is, are they seriously counting out grains of rice? Because I could think of better ways for them to spend their time.

    • Ha! That is hilarious. I can just imagine the UN hiring a staff of grain-counters.

      I’m guessing that calculation happens on bulk amounts and is, at some level somewhere, an average. 🙂

  4. I did make it to 50 once, but most of the time I’ve hovered about 47 – 48, getting some wrong and dropping a little, then gaining ground to get back up near there. It’s been fun!

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